FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas pitcher Jalen Beeks knew he would be the Razorbacks’ opening day starter for a week-and-a-half.
Coach Dave Van Horn may not have revealed his choice publicly until Wednesday, but the left-hander said he was given ample time to prepare. Beeks admitted it may have been too much as he counted the days until Arkansas’ season opener.
“It was a long wait,” Beeks said. “But it felt great to go out there.”
The junior didn’t disappoint when the opportunity to take the mound first for a new-look staff arrived Friday, helping Arkansas cruise to a 12-2 win against Appalachian State in front of an announced crowd of 7,203 in Baum Stadium.
The Prairie Grove native — who made a team-high 29 appearances out of the bullpen last season — looked confident in his first Arkansas start. He allowed three hits over six scoreless innings, walked one and struck out six batters.
It was the longest outing for an Arkansas starter in a season opener since 2009, when former Hog Dallas Keuchel tossed six innings against Washington State. It also showed Arkansas — which entered the season with plenty of questions about its inexperienced pitching staff — has a talented arm to build around.
“I thought he did a great job,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “He had good stuff. It looked like in the fifth and sixth inning, the last couple of innings, that he really got into a groove. His sixth inning was probably his best inning and he still had good velocity. It was the same in that he was throwing the ball 90 to 92 miles per hour on a chilly night and had a pretty good change-up, a little slider.”
The performance was a far cry from Beeks’ last appearance in 2013.
The reliever endured an NCAA Tournament appearance to forget in the season-ending 4-3 loss to Kansas State in the Manhattan (Kan.) Regional. Beeks, who had been one of Arkansas’ most dependable relievers, inexplicably allowed the game-tying and go-ahead runs on back-to-back wild pitches in the seventh inning.
Beeks (1-0) said earlier this month the mistakes were difficult to handle. He had thrown only two wild pitches all season before the NCAA Regional. But he leaned on teammates to shake off the struggles and began the long preparation for 2014.
“Sometimes it just doesn’t work out,” Beeks said during Arkansas’ media day. “And when it’s in the big games it really sucks. But I’ve just got to have a short-term memory. … There’s always another day in baseball. I’m excited about this year. I’ve forgotten about that last year and I’m ready for this year.”
He had no issues against Appalachian State, although Van Horn said his most experienced pitcher showed some nerves before having a conversation with pitching coach Dave Jorn in the dugout. Beeks allowed a leadoff single, but any threat was erased with a double play to end the inning. He put the leadoff hitter on again in the second and another double play ended the threat again.
“He wasn’t as smooth as he normally is with his delivery,” Van Horn said. “I think he was rushing it a little bit and Coach Jorn had a talk with him and I think he calmed down a little bit. It’s just first-day jitters or his first start.
“The guys were just really looking forward to playing somebody else and sometimes you just have to slow them down a little bit.”
Beeks also benefitted from an Arkansas offense that showed potential in roughing up Appalachian State starter Jamie Nunn (1-0) on Friday.
The Razorbacks struck early against Appalachian State, which endured a difficult trip to Fayetteville because of a winter storm on the East Coast. The Mountaineers originally scheduled a Thursday arrival, but flight cancellations changed their plans and eventually delayed the start time of the season opener by an hour.
It didn’t get any better when Appalachian State arrived Friday afternoon. The Razorbacks scored three runs in the first inning after stringing together singles by returning starters Joe Serrano, Brian Anderson, Tyler Spoon and Brett McAfee.
Newcomer KJ Wilkerson — who was making his Arkansas debut — provided the power in the second inning with a two-run home run over the right field fence. Arkansas players described the feat as a rarity in Baum Stadium.
“Have you seen him? He’s a beast,” Serrano said. “It’s unreal. He’s super human.”
Arkansas added three more runs on Anderson’s bases-loaded double in the fourth inning to end Nunn’s night. The Razorbacks got three more runs in the fifth off reliever Zach Joyce to build an 11-0 lead.
Anderson, Wilkerson and Serrano each had three hits. Arkansas had 13 total.
“It definitely helps your confidence knowing that we have the ability to put up runs like that,” Anderson said. “Even with guys coming off the bench and supplying some pop. And when you have guys like Krisjon Wilkerson that are stepping up, guys you haven’t really seen a lot play in front of a crowd, that’s always a confidence boost.”
It was more than enough for Beeks, who got stronger throughout his first start.
Van Horn said he planned to give his starters as many as 85 pitches during the opening weekend and Beeks stretched his allotment over six innings. He threw 72 pitches, 50 for strikes and ended his night with an 11-pitch sixth inning.
“I got the jitters out of the way the first two or three innings,” said Beeks, whose longest appearance in 2013 was a three-inning stint against Western Illinois in the opening weekend. “So I felt a little more comfortable the last two or three innings.”